Voices

The UK's 2,000-year-old relationship with Libya

By Tony Calderbank

23 November 2016 - 16:19

There is a cultural heritage between our two countries that goes back 2,000 years, but this and other episodes in Libya's rich history are now under threat. The British Council's Tony Calderbank explains.

Libya and the Roman Empire

In August this year, I travelled to Scotland with a gentleman from the Libyan department of antiquities. As a young man, he had taken part in an archaeological dig at one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall, and had unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier from Tripolitania, a province of the Roman Empire, now in modern-day Libya.

Before he died in York in AD 211, the emperor Septimius Severus led a force into southern Scotland, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, and built permanent settlements on the east coast to encourage trade. Just as Hadrian’s Wall, completed in AD 128, marked the northern extent of the Roman Empire, the line of fortresses built by Septimius – the Limes Tripolitanus – marked the southern limit on the edges of the Sahara desert. Hadrian's Wall kept out the Picts, while the Limes Tripolitanus protected the magnificent cities of the Mediterranean coast from the marauding Geramantes.

Septimius, the African emperor, was himself a Libyan, hailing from Leptis Magna. One of the great cities of the ancient world, Leptis Magna was surrounded by fertile olive groves and vineyards, whose oil and wine were famous across the empire. Together with Sabratha and Oea, it was one of the three cities that gave their name to Tripolitania - meaning 'three cities' in Greek (Τρίπολις). Today, Leptis continues to inspire wonder: it's the most extensive and best-preserved Greco-Roman site in the whole of North Africa.

If Libyan soldiers had been garrisoned on Hadrian’s Wall and served in Scotland, my friend mused, it must have been just as likely for British soldiers to be stationed in Libya. It is not only a wonderful insight into the mobility and diversity in the Roman Empire, but a reminder of the ancient connections between our two countries: a Roman emperor from Libya, whose wanderings included Dumfries (later the birthplace of Scottish national poet Robert Burns), and the oasis Berber town of Ghadames.

The impact of other external forces on Libya's heritage

The Roman period is just one episode in Libya’s rich history. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and Muslim Arabs all left their mark. Libya was also a major centre of early Christianity. Pope Victor I, also from Leptis Magna, was the first pope to say mass in Latin rather than Greek. From 1551 onwards, the country fell under the sway of the Ottoman Empire, until the Italians moved in just before the First World War.

Libya’s cultural history, however, is not just a list of external forces. Foreign influences have blended with local cultures, making the architecture of cities like Leptis and Sabratha unique.

The effect of Libya's ethnic mix

Libya’s ethnic mix has added to this fusion of elements. The majority of the population is of Arab or Berber origin, descendants of the intermarriage between Arabs and the indigenous Berber population since the time of the Muslim conquests. Today, around five per cent continue to identify as Berber, mainly in the north west, and are called Imazighen in their native language. The nomadic Tuareg (Imuhagh), who are also considered a Berber community, live in the west, on the Algerian border, and the Tebu live in the south. Their main populations are in Chad and Niger. Until recently, there were also thriving Jewish and Armenian communities in the coastal cities.

People first made their mark in Libya 100,000 ago

Libya’s cultural history goes much further back than classical antiquity. Excavations in the Haua Fteah cave in north-eastern Libya indicate continued human habitation for the last 100,000 years. The first occupants were Neanderthals, when the Sahara was fertile savannah, grazed upon by herds of gazelle and antelope. Many items from that time have been recovered, including skilfully crafted tools and, most remarkably, a bone flute.

Early archaeologists were astonished at the huge number of stone tools in areas of central and southern Libya that are now desert. There is a plethora of sites where cave paintings depict the ancient gods of the Egyptians and Berbers, as well as the fauna and topography of the region.

Finally, the waters off Libya’s coast are home to a number of sites that were submerged after the violent earthquake of AD 365, and the ensuing tsunami that struck the south Mediterranean coast. Now they offer a relatively unexplored paradise for divers and maritime archaeologists.

Five sites that have been placed on the endangered list

In July this year, UNESCO placed Libya’s five world heritage sites on its endangered list. As well as indicating concerns about the country's deteriorating security situation, the move also highlighted its rich cultural heritage.

Cyrene: originally a Greek colony, it became one of the principal urban centres of the Hellenic world and was significantly damaged by the earthquake.

Leptis Magna: One of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire, known as Lebda in Arabic.

Sabratha: The first part of the Numidian kingdom, later rebuilt by the Romans.

Ghadames old town: Known as the 'pearl of the desert', it features spectacular traditional Saharan architecture.

Tadrart Acacus: An area in the south west with a proliferation of rock art and thousands of cave paintings, some dating back to 12,000 B.C.

The threat of destruction to Libya's cultural heritage

These five sites represent just a small part of something much bigger. Since the current conflict erupted in 2011, large numbers of lesser-known sites, museums and historical buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Lack of law and order, and the absence of planning permission processes, have seen ancient sites cleared for construction and agriculture, and historic buildings pulled down to make way for new developments. Artefacts have been looted and smuggled out of the country, and cave paintings have been sprayed over.

After the overthrow of Gaddafi, hundreds of people wandered unimpeded through museums and storerooms. My Libyan colleague and his team removed thousands of items and sealed them behind concrete to keep them safe. Nevertheless, countless priceless pieces have found their way abroad. Earlier this year, figurines of the goddess Persephone were due to be auctioned in London. They turned out to have been taken from Tripoli's museum: my Libyan friend, who worked at the antiquities department, was involved in securing them.

The damage to Libya’s traditional Islamic heritage

Perhaps the most profound damage has been visited upon Libya’s traditional Islamic heritage by hard-liners. Sufi shrines across the country have been bulldozed and blown up over the last few years. The influence of the Senussi order, which has played a major role in Libyan life for the last 150 years or so, is not in line with the thinking of those who reject the veneration of Sufi saints as idolatrous. A particularly vivid example of this was the removal of the body of Sidi Muhammad Al-Mahdi As-Senussi, a revered sheikh of the order who died in 1902, from his mausoleum in Kufra in south-east Libya.

For many Libyans, the damage to their Islamic traditions hits deeply. Recent damage inflicted on the Karamanli Mosque in Tripoli left many local people angry and upset, and led to significant protests. The deputy prime minister at the time said that the perpetrators would be punished. But his threat is unlikely to be realised any time soon, as those responsible for the desecration are actors in Libya's political mayhem.

Libya's cultural heritage can bring people together

Yet Libya's cultural heritage can bring people together. As the head of UNESCO, Irina Bokova says, it is 'the expression of a shared memory of the country': it could be a way to build a country that has, because of its recent history, often been seen negatively. As many who have grown to know and love the cultural gems hidden in Libya would suggest, beautiful sites like Leptis Magna don’t just belong to Libya, but to the whole world.

The importance of cultural heritage is one of the items on the agenda at this year’s Hammamet conference in Tunisia on 24 - 26 November 2016. Follow @HammametConf on Twitter for updates, and join the conversation using #HammametConf.

Find out more about the British Council's work in Libya, such as support for the proposed expansion of a children’s museum, where Libyan children can explore in the sand and unearth old coins and tools on a mock archaeological dig. 

You might also be interested in